Review No.137 – On the Steel Breeze

On the Steel Breeze – Alastair Reynolds (Poseidon’s Children No.2)

Gollancz, 2013

Through space the holoships are drifting, vast asteroids transformed into temporary worlds, each home to a population of millions and all set on the same course: to Crucible, the promised planet where an ancient monument to alien artifice beckons them on like a siren call to human curiosity. Dramatic advances in both spacecraft technology and life prolongation have put such a journey within the reach of a single human life, but Chiku Akinya has an advantage over her fellow passengers. She has three lives; three selves, the sisters of a groundbreaking experiment in cloning. It is through their united efforts that the truth is unearthed – Crucible is not what they have been led to believe. And it’s already too late to turn back…

This second novel of the Akinya dynasty picks up more than two centuries after the end of Blue Remembered Earth, following the variations of Chiku Akinya through a time of revolutionary social, political and personal change. This is a book with extraordinary scope and imagination,  combining huge concepts with recognisably human protagonists, and all the flaws, quirks and emotions that entails. It’s really wonderful to see a version of the future that is not predominantly straight, white and male; also, a version of Earth that is neither impossibly utopian or apocalyptically disastrous. This is the second book in the Poseidon’s Children series and I’m very much hoping for more.

Review No.136 – Untold

Untold – Sarah Rees Brennan (The Lynburn Legacy No.2)

Simon and Schuster, 2013

From the outside Sorry-in-the-Vale seems no different from any other picture postcard village in the English countryside, but Kami Glass knows better. She was once the crazy girl who never outgrew her imaginary friend; now that imaginary friend is walking the streets of Sorry-in-the-Vale while the two halves of his family battle for supremacy, and everyone in the village must choose whether to bow to their power or fight. But how can they fight what they refuse to acknowledge exists?

Sarah Rees Brennan has a gift for capturing complicated emotions and relationships, and proves it again with this sequel to Unspoken. While Kami remains the lead protagonist, all of the secondary characters evolve and gain greater depth as the stakes rise ever higher. I was not entirely satisfied with Jared’s character arc, but Kami was adorably unstoppable as ever, Ash and Holly in particular developed much more rounded personalities, and Gothic tropes got flipped around so many times they’re probably dizzy. The series continues with Unmade, due for release later this year.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.75 – Shippeitaro

This week’s fairy tale is from The Wind Children and other tales from Japan, a collection retold by Samira Kirollos, and begins by introducing us to a young samurai warrior called Chõshirõ who has wealth, good looks and against all odds, two perfectly healthy parents, neither of whom are enspelled into the shape of a horse or bricked up inside a wall. More surprising yet, it is also a time of peace. With no urgent need to seek his fortune or save any lost brothers, logic dictates that Chõshirõ should count his lucky stars and hope like hell life stays that way. Instead, he leaves his estate in the capable hands of his parents and goes off on holiday. If the adventures will not come to him, he will go forth and find them.

Before long he comes to a promisingly ominous forest. Other heroes, attempting to mind their own business, would inevitably be set upon by all manner of magics; Chõshirõ, who longs to wrestle with a kappa and be tricked by a fox-woman, swooped on by a Tengu or visited by the ghosts of dead warriors, walks for seven days through dark woods and up a lonely mountain without seeing anything out of the ordinary at all.

On the seventh night, things start looking up, when he gets stranded in the middle of nowhere and comes across the ruins of a ‘spooky little temple’. Even the weather is getting into the spirit of heroic hardship, pelting down rain, so Chõshirõ takes refuge in the ruin. “I set off in search of adventure and have so far found nothing,” he tells himself. “I’d better give myself a good night’s sleep. Who knows what tomorrow will bring!”

Insane optimism is all it takes to overcome Murphy’s Law. At midnight, Chõshirõ is woken by a series of ear-splitting shrieks and yowls, and snatches up his swords to go investigate. Outside the temple, he sees nine white cats wearing hats, flourishing fans, dancing on their tails and wailing a song about the unknowable whereabouts of Shippeitarõ, and how much they don’t want to meet with him. Who is Shippeitarõ? Chõshirõ doesn’t know, but he plans on finding out. Adventure at last! He goes back to sleep contemplating what wickedness may be afoot.

The next morning he spots a path that he does not recall having been there the day before and follows it out of the trees onto a plain. At length, he reaches a mansion on the outskirts of a small village, where the sound of crying draws him inside. The entire household is sitting around one girl, all of them weeping. At first, they brush off Chõshirõ’s offer of help, but when he persists the girl’s mother explains their situation.

A malicious spirit lives in the ruined temple on the mountain. Every year it demands the sacrifice of a young girl, and if denied its prey, sends storms to destroy the crops. This particular girl is to die in seven days time. Undaunted, Chõshirõ reveals that he spent the night in that very temple, and is delighted by the awe of his audience. He asks for maps of the surrounding villages and makes his methodical way around the region enquiring after the identity of Shippeitarõ, without any success. By the seventh day, he is losing confidence. Sitting by a stream to rethink his strategy, he’s astounded to hear that mysterious name being called right behind him. When he turns around, he sees an enormous dog bounding away in answer. Chõshirõ hastily joins its master, an elderly gentleman who turns out to be the local lord, and asks if he can borrow the dog for one night. With some reluctance, the lord agrees.

Chõshirõ then dashes back to the sorrowful household, only to learn that the girl is already en route to her death. He catches up with the sacrificial procession halfway up the mountain and lets the girl out of her wooden coffin, ordering her to go home and hide while he continues on with the empty box. It doesn’t remain empty for long. Chõshirõ shuts the incredibly good-natured dog in there and hides himself in the woods around the temple.

At midnight, the nine white cats return with a tenth as their leader, this one black-furred and enormous. They dance around the box, shrieking in a frenzy. The black cat whips the lid off the box and Shippeitarõ leaps out, knocking the cat to the ground. At this point Chõshirõ joins the fray with his swords, mercilessly slaughtering all ten of the cats. WHAT THE HELL, Chõshirõ, you could not have tried negotiating first?

The grisly victory achieved, he returns to the household to explain the night’s events. He does not propose to the girl he rescued and no one offers her up as a reward, thank goodness. First thing in the morning, he returns Shippeitarõ to his master, then follows the road out of the village onto the plain. One adventure is not enough – there’s a big world out there. He still hasn’t given up on the fox-women.

Well, I hope they continue to avoid him. Anti-cat prejudice is not unfamiliar in fairy tales, with similar superstitions to be found in many parts of the world. That does not make the violent deaths of these cats any more palatable, especially as they do nothing more sinister than wear hats and sing incomprehensible songs. It’s very fourth wall to have a protagonist obsessed with the very stories he ends up falling into, and I’m very pleased that the girl manages to avoid all forms of sacrifice, but anyone who goes around killing cats is no hero of mine.

Review No.135 – The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown – Holly Black

Indigo, 2013

No one believed it when the first cases hit the media. Now everyone knows the truth: vampires are real. Even quarantined inside Coldtowns, they spread the infection, with glamourised livefeeds of what takes place behind their walls inspiring fascination and infatuation from the humans outside. But the Coldtowns themselves are only an illusion of safety. The morning after a party, Tana Bach wakes up to find her friends dead, her ex bloodthirsty with the onset of infection, and a vampire chained up beside him. It’s not a good start to the day. And things only get worse from there…

Using the world building of her short story of the same name (which can be found in her anthology The Poison Eaters and other stories), Black spins a fresh take on the vampire legend, exploring the ramifications of their exposure in a media-driven age and the logical effect that has on human society with a cast of characters who are diverse, flawed and multifaceted. I love Black’s style of writing and this latest novel is as sharp and intelligent as ever. I’m not sure yet whether she intends to write a sequel – I’d love it if she did, but The Coldest Girl in Coldtown stands on its own just fine.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.74 – Jekovoy

This week’s fairy tale is from the exasperatingly vague Hamlyn collection Legends from Eastern Lands and would appear to take place in a khanate far, far away. How far away? I don’t know. Which annoys me.

Anyway! The particular khan in this story is out riding one day with his beloved young son Jekovoy when they are set upon by a huge bear who snatches up the child and disappears into the forest. Despite the frantic searching of the khan and his men, Jekovoy is nowhere to be found. It seems very unlikely that he is still alive.

But in fairy tales unlikely things are basically normal life and in this case the bear has not only not eaten the kidnapped child, she’s bringing him up as her own. Jekovoy, in his turn, comes to think of her as his mother. One day when the khan returns to that part of the forest on a hunting trip, he sees the bear charging at him and gets in first with an arrow. While that’s an understandable reaction, Jekovoy doesn’t see it that way. Displaying astonishingly advanced language skills for a boy brought up by a bear, he denounces the khan as a murderer. You killed my mother! Prepare to die!

The khan, however, has a great comeback: Jekovoy, I am your father. Overwhelmed, Jekovoy lets himself be pulled into a paternal embrace. After he has buried his foster mother, he returns with the khan to the palace for a celebratory feast, but he is horribly confused by the whole situation and ends up escaping back to the forest to mourn over the bear’s grave. “Oh Mother!” he exclaims aloud, “how can I avenge your death?”

Unbeknownst to him, the khan’s spies were listening in. A messenger returns to the palace with the news that Jekovoy is plotting revenge. Alarmed, the khan sends back instructions that his son is to go chop down wood for the defences of his town, the real intent being for Jekovoy to be ripped apart by wild animals. That is not what I would describe as paternal.

This plan has a fatal flaw. Jekovoy gets on brilliantly with the wild animals, in fact they come over to help him rebuild the palisade. Unfortunately, the khan assumes this is an invading army and quickly calls together his viziers. Their advice is to send Jekovoy off on another potential suicide mission. If he recaptures the town of Chimkent from the khan’s enemies, all to the good; if he dies in the attempt, that’s a bonus! Relieved, the khan places the challenge before his son, who accepts. Jekovoy also refuses to take any of the khan’s men with him to join the fight, asking instead for a sword weighing seventy thousand stone and an iron club weighing sixteen thousand stone. That’s no small request, but anything to get him away from the palace is fine by the khan, so the ridiculously immoveable weapons are made and Jekovoy handles both with ease. Heroes are like that.

Eighty thousand warriors are guarding the walls of Chimkent. Jekovoy lays waste to the lot of them with the power of his voice alone. He then strides inside and tells the citizens he’s now in charge, which they do not dispute for obvious reasons. Actually, he’s a pretty great khan. His taxes are fair, his laws are not oppressive, and he cares about social justice. Well done, mama bear, you raised your boy well!

Far from being proud of Jekovoy’s achievements, however, his father is furious. “My son proved a thorn in my flesh before,” he tells his viziers, “and now he has set up a rival khanate. This is a threat to my authority that must not go unchallenged.” The viziers, who know their boss doesn’t give a damn about social justice, quickly come up with another solution. Suicide mission no.3: go into the mountains and bring back two giants on a leash. Why does the khan need two giants on a leash? DON’T ASK QUESTIONS.

Jekovoy doesn’t ask questions, he’s not that kind of a person; he gets ready to leave immediately. The people of Chimkent try to convince him this is a bad idea, pointing out that if he leaves they will only be invaded all over again by someone a lot fonder of taxes. “The minute I hear of any attack on Chimkent,” he promises, “I will return and crush the enemy to dust.” Or, you know, shout at them. Either’s good.

He then sets off for the mountains. On his way he meets a giant called Tash, who as it turns out is off to Chimkent. His plan, he tells Jekovoy, is to seize the city from its bleeding-heart boyo of a ruler. Jekovoy challenges Tash to a contest of strength, to prove he’s worthy of taking the town; then he grabs the giant and throws him across seven hilltops, just to make his point clear. That’s the easy bit. Finding the giant again is trickier. He tracks him down at last and is there when Tash wakes up, to inquire whether he’s still interested in Chimkent. Panicked, Tash kisses his hand and vows to take up cooking instead.

With one giant now in his service, Jekovoy goes looking for the other one, and finds him juggling plane trees. This giant is called Kheers and he’s also headed for Chimkent, intending to apply his hefty clubs to its weedy youth of a khan. Jekovoy smiles. Next thing Kheers knows, he’s being juggled with the trees. By the time Jekovoy lets him go, the giant is only too happy to stay away from Chimkent. He joins Jekovoy’s entourage and the trio travel on through the mountains.

One day they come to a small hamlet where seven witches are brewing up mutton stew on the village green. Jekovoy, the least judgy prince ever, greets them with scrupulous good manners. Mama bear, why did you not start up a royal daycare centre? The witches are pleased, but unwisely inform him that if he’d been rude they’d have eaten him up. Appalled at their wicked ways, Jekovoy whips out his club and beheads the lot of them.

The village, though, is rather nice and he decides to stay on for a few more days. The next morning, Kheers goes off with Jekovoy to check out the local scenery and Tash stays back at the campsite to cook lunch. A cauldron of soup is almost done when a tiny old man comes riding up on goatback to beg a bite and when Tash says yes, drinks the lot.

Tash cobbles a second batch together as best he can, but Jekovoy isn’t impressed and decides to stay behind the next day to do the cooking himself. When the little old man comes riding up for a second time, Jekovoy hurls a red hot boulder from the fire at him, and his head flies off – but unlike the witches, this doesn’t kill him. It only makes him really, really cross. Jekovoy snatches for the head, but it rolls down a hole in the ground and out of sight.

When the giants return, Jekovoy explains the situations and orders them to make a rope. Once that has been done, he gets Tash to climb down the hole, but Tash gets too scared to go on and has to be pulled back up. The same happens with Kheers. Exasperated, Jekovoy goes down himself. The rope is not quite long enough, so he jumps the rest of the way, and is of course completely uninjured. The first thing he sees at the bottom of the hole is a beautiful girl sitting in an iron cage. When she opens her eyes, daylight floods the cave. When she closes them again, night falls. Now that’s an original take on ‘the light of my life’.

Jekovoy is struck wordless with admiration. The girl opens her eyes again to study him and decides, quite kindly, that he is an idiot. “Birds enter here and scorch their wings,” she tells him. “If humans enter, they burn their limbs. I pity you!” The cavern, she explains, belongs to the evil sorcerer Razgoon and is guarded by seventy thousand bloodthirsty jinns. For every drop of their blood that is spilled, they double in number. The girl’s advice is that Jekovoy kill them all in their sleep, but he’s far too honourable and high-minded for that sort of thing, proving that she’s right: he is an idiot. More importantly, though, an idiot with a really impressive voice. His first shout brings down a small landslide; his second causes structural damage to the cave itself; his third brings about an outraged earthquake. The jinn, who are pretty rubbish guards, eventually get up to see what’s going on.

Talented though Jekovoy is, he’s simply not equipped for this sort of a fight. The battle drags on for days, but every time it seems he must at last lose the girl closes her eyes, casting the cavern into darkness and distracting the jinn. When his sword fails, Jekovoy brings out the club; he starts hammering djinn into the ground like nails. Seven days later, he beats Razgoon’s head right down through the stone bedrock and the battle is won. The girl in the cage opens her eyes, flooding the cavern in daylight. “Release me from my prison, noble youth!”

After defeating demons unnumbered, a cage is no trouble. The girl takes Jekovoy’s hand and leads him into Razgoon’s magnificent treasure room, the contents of which may as well now be his. Tash and Kheers pull it up sack by sack until only Jekovoy and the girl are left. An admirably cynical individual, she advises Jekovoy tie the rope around them both and have them hauled up at the same time, but Jekovoy dismisses her fears. That proves to be a terrible idea. The girl is pulled safely to the surface; the rope is cut while Jekovoy is only halfway up. He falls hard and is knocked unconscious.

Days later, he wakes and finds a passage to the surface. He searches the wilderness for the giants and the girl they have doubtless abducted, but in vain – all he finds is a town in the middle of nowhere where a man is doing his best to bury himself. Jekovoy, bewildered, asks him why. The answer is that a dragon has come to town and everybody is bunkering down to hide. That’s challenge enough for Jekovoy, who sets off like the dyed in the wool hero that he is to face down a dragon. Drawing his sword, he sets about chopping the poor beast into pieces. I’m sure it does his ego the world of good.

It was terrorising the town, though, and the villagers are all very pleased to see it gone. They invite Jekovoy to stay, recognising a useful neighbour when they see one, but he refuses very politely and resumes his search. The next place of note he comes to is the sea of Issyk-Kul, where the waters boil and another dragon is threatening the lives of children…the mythical bird Seemourg’s children, who are both the size of full-grown camels, but definitely children nonetheless and Jekovoy’s having none of it. He whips out his bow and brings down the dragon with a single arrow. Then he chops up the felled beast and climbs to Seemourg’s nest to feed her babies their enemy’s flesh. Which is WEIRD, but they like it.

While Jekovoy is occupied, Seemourg returns to the nest. Her children conceal Jekovoy under their wings, trying to deny his existence; when their mum remains unconvinced, they risk explaining who he really is. Seemourg is not much fond of human beings as anything except lunch, but the dragon has devoured many of her children and she is so glad to see it dead that she promises to grant Jekovoy any wish she can. All he wants is a lift back to Chimkent. He’s pretty sure he knows where the giants went.

Sure enough, there they are, living it up as fabulously wealthy khans while the people around them starve. The girl Jekovoy saved in Razgoon’s cavern has been caged once more, having refused to marry either giant, because they are creeps. Jekovoy handles the situation by shooting Tash straight through the heart. Kheers tries to retaliate by throwing his club, but Seemourg swallows the thing in midair like a worm; when the giant tries to run, he is felled by a second arrow. Jekovoy is greeted with joy by his constituents, and by the girl, whom he frees all over again. This time he asks her to marry him, and she says yes, because Jekovoy is not a creep.

The wedding ceremony is not quite over when a messenger from Jekovoy’s father comes riding into town. The khan’s town is in trouble. He needs a hero, and is calling on the only one he knows. Jekovoy has no illusions about the kind of man his father is, but because the people of the town are suffering he goes to banish their enemies and naturally succeeds in about ten seconds flat. Panic and gratitude bring about a change of heart with the khan, who begs Jekovoy to stay and be his successor. Jekovoy says no. He returns to his bride and to Chimkent, the town he made his own, where he rules wisely, generously, and above all, intelligently until the end of his days.

A hero of the story who is genuinely heroic! Who is polite to everyone, including people who are NOT exceptionally beautiful! A girl for whom the term ‘beautiful as the sun’ is not even a metaphor! There is much to enjoy in this fairy tale. If anyone can tell me what country it is originally from, I’d love to know.

Fairy Tale Tuesday No.73 – The Kingdom of Ocean

This Indian fairy tale comes from my extremely difficult to obtain copy of Ruth Manning-Sanders’ A Book of Mermaids. It begins when a ship encounters a storm at sea and promptly disintegrates. All hands on board are lost save for one young sailor, who manages to hang onto a passing plank and is eventually washed ashore on a small island. At first glance it appears to be a storybook paradise of ripe fruit, but when he reached up to snag some breakfast he realises the branches are thick with jewels instead.

In other circumstances, that would be the answer to Midas-level prayers. The situation being what it is, the sailor would prefer carbs to carats, but he pockets a handful of the jewels anyway and walks on in the hope he’ll find something more edible. Sure enough, there is one tree on this island that grows real fruit – an apple tree, growing beside a well. After he has eaten his fill, the sailor bends to slake his thirst at the well, and sees a woman’s face gazing back at him through the water. She is so beautiful that when she crooks her finger he leaps headfirst into the well without stopping to think.

“Welcome to the Kingdom of Ocean!” the mermaid declares. She adopts the role of tour guide, proudly showing off a panorama of rainbow bridges and crystal forests. It turns out that she is the queen, and the sailor is basically being interviewed for the vacant position of king. He is more than happy to accept.

For some time they are very happy together, but then the sailor king (that would sound so much better if he was a pirate) becomes curious about a hall of pillars in the palace where a mysterious veil is hung. Upon the fabric cities rise and fall, forests grow and fade, night comes and day again. The mermaid is very uneasy when he mentions it, but she doesn’t try to dissuade him from further questions. Instead she takes him for a proper look, hoping this will satiate his curiosity. It doesn’t. He wants to see behind it, and when she draws the veil aside to reveal the statue of a diminutive warrior, he wants to touch it. There, his wife draws the line – no one is permitted to touch the statue. She claims she doesn’t know why, but he doesn’t believe her. Often he goes to look again, reaching out, almost touching…only to stop himself at the last minute. He broods. Frankly, he becomes obsessive.

“Am I a king and may I not have my own way?” he reasons. “Am I to bow to the will of a mermaid wife? After all, I promised her nothing. I must and will touch that little image, let happen what may!”

Exhibit A for the power of karma: no sooner has his hand touched the warrior than its stone foot boots him so hard he is sent flying right out of the kingdom, up the well and across the sea, to land breathless but somehow not broken on the shore of his own country. With no way of returning to Ocean, he goes home to his own village instead. His parents are delighted to see him alive, having believed him drowned on that ship, but expect he will soon return to sea to earn his living.

He does not mean to do any such thing. He still has his pocketful of jewels; these he sells and uses the proceeds to buy a small farm. After a while he marries a village girl, who either doesn’t care or doesn’t believe that he was once husband to an undersea queen. Though he sometimes thinks wistfully of Ocean and the mermaid, he never returns. And, as Manning-Sanders puts it, “Whether his mermaid queen still thought of him, or whether she didn’t – who can tell?”

I hope she didn’t. This fairy tale is unusual in recognising that some relationships can be impermanent without either party being evil; certainly, divorce by statue is a bit extreme, but the narrative does not condemn the sailor, and more importantly, it does not condemn the mermaid. There is absolutely no reason to suppose she did not find a less sexist, speciesist husband to share her kingdom – someone who actually appreciated that crystal forest.

 

Review No.134 – Deadline

Deadline – Mira Grant (Newsflesh No.2)

Orbit, 2011

The zombies rose twenty seven years ago, but for Shaun Mason the world ended last year when his sister Georgia died. Her voice has been talking inside his head ever since, and anyone who tries to stop him talking back will get hurt. He has only one purpose left: to find the people who ordered her murder and make them pay. His breakthrough comes in the form of a doctor legally declared dead, who arrives on his doorstep with a trail of research that could bring down one of the most powerful organisations in the world. The truth will change everything. If Shaun lives long enough to tell it…

I read my way into the new year with Deadline and let me tell you, if there’s anything that could make these books more alarming, it would be reading them in the summer of 2014, when the zombies are predicted to rise. And it didn’t matter – I couldn’t tear myself away. Deadline doesn’t have as strong a structure as Feed, and the word ‘crazy’ is definitely overused, but the momentum is relentless, the plot twists are hairpin turns and the ending left me stunned (also, desperate to get hold of book three). The trilogy concludes with Blackout.